Sunday, September 25, 2011

“Jhulley Ladakh.”




“Jhulley” means greetings, thank you, good wishes, bye all in one in Ladakhi. You say Jhulley at the beginning and end of every conversation. The built up to the trip was climatically dramatic. We went wearing raincoats to the airport in Goa, by the time we were in Delhi we did not need it, then we changed to light clothing as it was dry and slightly hot in Delhi, by the time we were in Ladakh we were freezing in the dress as it was quite cold and we could feel the cold breeze as soon as we came out of the airport. In a matter of hours we came from heavy rains to dry & hot climate to the cold winds of Himalayas.

Leh is one of the highest livable cities in the world, higher than any city in Europe. Being at 13500 feet has its perils – nausea, headache, breathlessness are all part of the package here. The first couple of days are the most difficult as you try to cope up with the high altitude then your body slowly adjusts. In the meanwhile you discover more about the Himalayas through the people, their dressing, food and lifestyle. Ladakhis ever so warm, humble, soft spoken are the perfect interface between you and the extreme and harsh terrain. They kind of make you comfortable and there is a sense of security when you are with them. The climate is unimaginably extreme with temperatures at -20 degrees during the winter. The climate and terrain have left with very few options and opportunities for the locals. The economy mostly relies on tourism which lasts during the summer months from April to September. The rest 06 months you are on your own mostly indoors with nothing to do. About a decade back this was the exact situation in Goa, so it did not come as a big surprise to us, though the heavy monsoons of Goa are far far better than the – 20’s of ladakh. Off late Goa is slowly moving towards year round tourist arrivals, an act very hard to replicate in Ladakh due to the sheer extremity of its climate and inaccessibility.  Small shops, handicraft stores, artisans, employees of restaurants and hotels conveniently move from Ladakh to Goa to enjoy year round earnings as the tourist season of Goa is from October to May during the winters and that of Ladakh is from June to September during the summers.

The food is very simple, again a reflection of the geography. I was expecting it to be more non vegetarian but Ladakh surprised me again as many of the locals prefer vegetarian though they also eat meats occasionally. Dal, sabzi, roti and rice were what we found cooking in local houses. Due to tourists arriving from different parts of the globe Leh has a good variety of cuisines. Gastronomically what stood out was tea, coming in black, lemon, with milk and Ladakhi variations. The tea was so good that we had it many times a day. It kept us warm and also tasted delicious. The Ladakhi variation of tea is salted and you have a special type of tea leaves to make it. They were kept in special local flasks which we found every where that kept it warm. We continued drinking Tea many times a day till we started descending to Manali and as we were descending the quality too started dropping till it became regular again.

Ladakh is one of the most sparsely populated regions and is also the second largest district of India. The first being Kutch, ironically both are deserts, Traveling through this desert you realize how small you are, miles and miles of hills standing tall as it has through the centuries. All your achievements, all that you have seen, experienced and lived by all look small. The fastest growing economy, the large sky scarpers, the wealth all seem to be of least importance here. The legends, the stories and the sheer Geography do instill that in you.  

The tourists however seem to enjoy whatever Ladakh has to offer, it is an exotic and different experience compared to any other destinations in India. Photography, biking, cycling, trekking, camping are experiences which tourists seek. International tourists have been visiting Ladakh for the past 20 years, domestic tourists have started exploring Ladakh since the break of the millennium and thanks to the hugely successful movie 3 idiots it is now getting mileage. The sand dunes of Nubra Valley, Pangong and Tsomarari lakes, Tsokar salt lake and the drive from Leh to Manali are not to be missed. The Khardungla pass which is the highest motor able road at 18500 feet. The Changla pass and Rohtang pass drive are all memorable experiences.

As were taking one of our many halts at Changla pass on our way to Pangong lake it suddenly started to snow lightly. All the tourists started celebrating and dancing in the snow, the local’s were sitting dejected as the snow had come much earlier than expected and they have a long harsh winter to overcome while the tourists or “people from the lower areas” as they call it will stay warm in the plains